Trail Also Provides History Lessons--November 2
January 1, 1970In addition to being a walk in the woods, a social experience shared with scores of other hikers and an introduction to the culture of modern day America, a complete hike of the Appalachian Trail also is a lesson in U.S. history.
In many places we have walked through the remnants of 18th and 19th century homesteads. Sometimes only foundations of a house mark the spot where someone had a home. Other times we can make out overgrown garden areas, small orchards that are yet producing edible fruit, and former livestock grazing areas defined by still-standing stone walls.
Those of us who live in Virginia and West Virginia know well the vacillating fortunes of coal mining. In central Pennsylvania, the trail passes by the sites of Yellow Springs and Rausch Gap Villages, once-thriving mining communities with populations of more than 1,000. Today, the only reminders left to show that so many people spent their lives here are a small cemetery and the old railroad grade that the trail makes use of for several miles.
A short distance south and standing just a few feet off the trail, the Pine Grove Iron Furnace produced firearms during the Revolutionary War and didn't cease operating until the 1890s.
Walking from Pennsylvania into Maryland, Laurie, MacAfee of Knob (The Amazing Appalachian Bouncing Dog), and I stepped across the famous Mason-Dixon Line. To settle a dispute between the followers of William Penn and the descendants of George Calvert, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were commissioned in 1765 to firmly establish the boundary between the two colonies. Because the Mason-Dixon Line later became the dividing point between slave-holding and free states, many people believe it was the impetus for calling the South "Dixie."
The name actually came from $10 bills printed by a bank in Louisiana; much of the population in that state traced its ancestry back to France and they referred to the money as "dix," French for 10. The bills became so extensively distributed that the entire South became known as Dixie.
In Maryland, we followed the crest of South Mountain for nearly 40 miles. In addition to its natural beauty, the ridgeline has been the scene of numerous activities in American history. During the French and Indian War in 1755, British troops (including a young George Washington) under the command of General Braddock built a wagon road through Turners Gap as they marched westward. The route later became incorporated into the country's first national road.
Speaking of George Washington, how many of us were taught in school that the citizens of nearby Boonsboro built the original Washington Monument in the 1820s on a prominent point on South Mountain?
On Sept. 14, 1862, the Civil War Battle of South Mountain raged from Crampton Gap to Turners Gap. The Union prevailed as Lee retreated west to Antietam Creek, but future U.S. president Rutherford B. Hayes was wounded during the fighting.
Even our dining places have had an historic aspect to them. Built decades before Braddock and Washington entered the area and more than a century before the Civil War, the South Mountain Inn has hosted a long list of prominent figures, among them believed to be Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Van Buren, James K. Polk, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.
After following the trail along the route of the old C&O Canal, we crossed into West Virginia and Harpers Ferry, located beside the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. Restored by the National Park Service to look as it did in the 1800s, the small town has played an important role throughout many stages of America's history.
Peter Stephens began a ferry service in 1733, helping to facilitate westward expansion. Robert Harper, who built a gristmill on a low island in the Shenandoah, purchased the business in 1747. On his way to Philadelphia in 1783 to serve as a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson looked down upon the meeting of the two rivers and declared it to be "worth a voyage across the Atlantic" and "perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature."
In his younger years, George Washington was employed as a surveyor in the area; as president, he worked with Congress to establish a federal armory and arsenal in the town. The quality munitions manufactured by the armory attracted the attention of Meriwether Lewis, who traveled to Harpers Ferry in 1803 to obtain supplies before heading westward with William Clark to explore the Louisiana Territory.
John Brown's failed raid on the federal arsenal in October 1859 was an attempt to seize the 100,000 muskets and rifles stored there. Brown had intended to turn the arms over to slaves, hoping to inspire an insurrection against their owners. Strategically situated as it was near the border between North and South, the town exchanged hands eight times during the Civil War.
I have become convinced that Mac enjoys the trails and its vistas as much as we do. Running ahead of us, he reached an overlook of the Potomac River shortly before we did. We arrived to find him not sniffing the bushes or wandering around looking for squirrels, but sitting on the edge of the precipice, peacefully looking over the scenery as if quietly appreciating the grandeur spread out before him.
Our grand adventure on the Appalachian Trail is quickly coming to a close -- fewer than 100 miles remain for us to complete its full 2,174 miles.